The 17th Parallel Revisited (part 2)

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Stop the brainwashed whitewashing of American crimes, celebrate more the heroics of the Vietnam War, suggests Josh Tribe


An American tourist at a museum in Quang Tri Province’s Dong Ha District. Quang Tri borders Laos and is home to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which divided the country during the Vietnam War. Photo by Josh Tribe

History, in addition to being a record of death, is also a living, breathing entity, an ever-changing constellation of facts and omissions.

And the “history” of the Vietnam War still trips me out.

 

Like tales of other holocausts, such as those wrought by the US military (all over the globe), the Afrikaners in Zululand, Imperial Japan in China (and elsewhere), the Chinese and Pol Pot’s haphazard slaughtering (of “their own people,” it’s always emphasized), and Nazi Germany, to name but a few, no matter how many books I read, my soul still can’t swallow the stories, no matter how coolly the circumstances that led to these carnages are delineated.

Wikipedia has the following to say about the Vinh Moc Tunnels:

“The tunnels were built to shelter people from the intense bombing of Son Trung and Son Ha communes in Vinh Linh county of Quang Tri Province in the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone. The American forces believed the villagers of Vinh Moc were supplying food and armaments to the North Vietnamese garrison on the island of Con Co, which was in turn hindering the American bombers on their way to bomb Hanoi.”

How dare a bunch of peasants help hinder the bombers en route to the capital of their country?!

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“The idea was to force the villagers of Vinh Moc to leave the area, but as is typical in Vietnam there was nowhere else to go.”

It’s one of the ornery factors inherent to a holocaust—there’s never an escape for those targeted. Recent Vietnamese history, however, provides us a contemporary analogy to the David verse Goliath triumph of Biblical lore.

“The villagers initially dug the tunnels to move their village 10 meters underground, but the American forces designed bombs that burrowed down 10 meters. Eventually against these odds, the villagers moved the village to a depth of 30 meters.

It [the tunnel system] was constructed in several stages beginning in 1966 and used until early 1972. The complex grew to include wells, kitchens, rooms for each family and spaces for healthcare. Around 60 families lived in the tunnels; as many as 17 children were born inside the tunnels.

The tunnels were a success and no villagers lost their lives. The only direct hit was from a bomb that failed to explode; the resulting hole was utilized as a ventilation shaft.”

Holy f’ing shit! Right? What?!?

Yass, it strikes all seven of my senses as nothing short of stupendous. And I don’t care how much help the forces of Uncle Ho may have received from the Soviets, the Chinese or Cubans, the Men and Women in the Black Pajamas defeated the US military’s industrial juggernaut. 

The United States, of course, has its own “Civil War” (perhaps the oddest, most oxymoronic phrase in the lexicon from which I draw) to reflect upon. During the War Between the States, France and England threw their money down, but I doubt many Americans have pondered the absurdity of some third party sending half a million troops to the shores of South Carolina or Maryland, with the intention of turning that bloody conflict’s tide.

Now pretend for a minute that the American Civil War took place 100 years after it did (which did in fact happen, only the war was waged upon the planes of culture, as opposed to geographic meridians). Then imagine the Soviet air force unleashing a genocidal bombing campaign, allegedly designed to wipe out whichever group they designated as evil doers, whether they were Robert E. Lee’s rebels or Lincoln’s unionists; (or, to make the Vietnam War analogy more chronological and logistically apt, imagine the Soviets doing their best to bomb either America’s antiwar demonstrators or Mayor Daley’s fascist police force—and all kindred swine—back to the Stone Age).

Just before Christmas I was having coffee with my American ex-girlfriend and her former English student, a once well-known Vietnamese model whose name I need not mention.

She, the former model, expressed a sentiment I hear quite often in Saigon from the mouths of its many denizens enamored with all that’s modern and American. In short, she said that her country needed to shed its notion that America was the Bad Guy in the bloodbath known as the Vietnam War, a notion which she claimed was pure chimera. She’d been abroad, she explained, and now understood the Real Truth, sounding much like a young American ideologue from 1961 would in defense of the Domino Theory.

I understand how important Vietnam feels its new, cozy relationship with the US Military is; I appreciate how ominous China and its sovereignty-violating maps are. But in terms of drawing more tourists, specifically return visitors, I’d urge those charged with conjuring clever slogans not to shy away from presenting Vietnam in more vainglorious terms.

Thailand may be the Land of Smiles and India certainly is Amazing; Cambodia has Angkor Wat... and Vietnam has, among other treasures, Quang Tri Province, located along the 17th parallel, homeland of the former Demilitarized Zone (DMZ): the Ben Hai River Bridge, Vinh Moc Tunnels et al.

Why isn’t all that a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Now I’ve yet to visit Berlin, but when I go, I’ll be damn sure not to miss seeing where they tore down that wall, where the Pink Floyd rock opera came to life. It was with this in mind that I wrote the following like a Dostoyevskian madman:  

Dear Vietnam:

What about being a bit more boastful about your recent history? I know it’s awkward and you despise feeling sorry for yourselves or shoving America’s past genocides (let alone those happening as you read) in its face, but you drove us out of here screaming like wounded hyenas... and it feels like you’ve started to take that for granted, at least when one examines the strategies you employ to draw tourists.

The direct flights from Russia to Nha Trang were a coup, to be sure, but it’s no secret that the tourism industry has stagnated, if not started to struggle. Why not revivify it with a bit of that Cu Chi Tunnel spirit?!

The Cu Chi Tunnel tour ought not include the opportunity for tourists to unload machine gun magazines upon its hallowed grounds. One visiting there should walk away in a daze of awe at the ingenuity of Vietnamese military history, the futile absurdity of foreign invasions.

This is the country that turned back Ghengis Khan and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Phu Quoc Island ain’t just a Hawaii-esque paradise—there’s more to it!—check Wikipedia... and while the Citadel in Hue is cool and all, its history is a lot less palpable to the modern traveler than the DMZ due north.

I bet there’s not a single foreign visitor to Vietnam that hasn’t seen at least one of the opuses about the Vietnam War that Hollywood has churned out over the last 30 years. People who have seen Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” whether they know it or not, want to see the Vinh Moc Tunnels. 

You don’t need to adopt my view of the Vietnam War to admit that people are fascinated by war. Exhibit A: The Hitler, err, I mean History Channel. Even National Geographic, which, in my 1980s youth, seemed to only air safari footage of the Serengeti and such, has for more than a decade now inundated itself with war-themed programming.

On the grand, intangible clock watchtower of human history, the Vietnam War took place, here, the mere blink of an eye ago. 

How about this for a national tourism slogan: Vietnam, Land of the Friendliest, Most Forgiving, Ultimate Badasses on the Planet.

As somebody said to me smilingly, without a hint of malice, in Saigon circa 1999: “You come here 30 years ago I kill you, now I sell you fruit shake—cheap price!”

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